THE MYSTICAL UNDERSTANDING OF ANGELS
In a famous biblical episode, Jacob wrestles a “man” who at one point, realizing that he cannot defeat Jacob, touches his thigh and throws it out of joint. All oral commentaries agree that Jacob’s opponent was not an ordinary man, but an angel. There are thousands of commentaries, including the Talmud, the oral tradition (Midrash), the mystical tradition (Zohar and Kabbalah), and the Hasidic tradition that describe and discuss angels. In our modern times, outside of Jewish literature, one can Google the word angel and get at least fifty million hits.
It is fascinating to note, for example, that when the Dalai Lama met Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, as described in the book, THE JEW IN THE LOTUS, the Buddhist leader was enthralled by the Jewish perspective of angels. A detailed discussion between Reb Zalman and the Dalai Lama on the angels of the different traditions ensued. Many of the so-called deities in the Tibetan world have almost exactly the same characteristics as certain archangels in the Western world. Moreover, these characteristics are cultivated by using similar contemplative methods of visualizations for protection, healing, blessing, strength, support, wisdom, compassion, and loving kindness.
The angelic realm is vast; it is a new way of looking at things. We learn in the Jewish oral tradition, for example, that God consulted angels before creating humans. In these teachings, angels were not too excited about creating a human species for they could see that it was destined to cause great trouble in the universe. It is also taught that angels were generally “jealous” of humans for we humans were destined to have greater latitude in our expression of free will. Angels only have limited free will as they are more intimately connected with the Divine, while humans have extensive free will as we are more easily confused about the purpose of our own existence. These teachings provide a mythos for encountering the world in a different way.
We find that God also “consults” with humans. For example, Abraham argues with God about the decision to destroy Sodom and he negotiates with God to try to save the city. Of course, we learn later that the city is destroyed. The issue is not what God “knew” in advance, rather it is the revelation of an interaction, a debate, and a give and take between Abraham and God.
We see the same process many times between Moses and God. Moses continually attempts to dissuade God from wiping out the Israelites for being so stiff-necked and hard-headed. The ability to argue with God opens an entirely new way to relate to the predicament of our existence.
Prophets, like Jonah, argue with God. Hasidic masters, like Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, constantly challenge God. Indeed, we are invited to develop this kind of relationship with God and angels. This is very different perspective than the widespread view that the human relationship to the Source should be one of complete subservience and total surrender.
Angels, on the other hand, only occasionally argue with God. Even the “fallen angels” who have a primary role in adding to the confusion of humans still need God’s “permission” to act, as we will see later. So angels are intermediaries between the unknowable force of creation—the center of life—and every aspect of the manifest universe. Indeed, their relationship to God is different that that of humans.
It is taught in many places that the creation of humans was never in doubt; rather, the idea of God consulting with angels is more to point out the liabilities of free will. Theoretically, this world would run beautifully, perfect in every way if humans did not exercise their own self-interest. However, as we humans are part of nature, the extensive and often troublesome free will that we have is viewed by the Jewish sages as a great experiment.
The experiment is this: can humans as co-creators evolve a world that is more profound (and on a higher level of perfection) than a world of angels without humans. This presents us with a significant challenge, which is the idea that we must realize that we are not only permitted, but indeed obliged, to do whatever is in our power to try to improve the way life unfolds, even when it involves “arguing” with God in a way that will influence and indeed change the way things happen.
The Source of Life
If someone throws a ball and it crashes through a window, do we say that the ball broke the window or that the person throwing the ball broke the window? Clearly, the primary mover is the source of the movement, and the responsibility falls with this source. The ball did not break the window of its own volition—it was thrown. Angels do not do things of their own will. They are simply vehicles of a higher expression.
Then there is a deeper aspect to this question. Did the person throwing the ball break the window, or was there a primary mover behind this person—did God break the window? There is a considerable range of opinions concerning the meaning of the word: God. What is it? How does it function? What role does it play in everyday events? Can it be influenced through our actions, thoughts or prayers?
Without losing ourselves in a theological discussion, I would like to establish for the reader that when I use the word God, I am referring to the force of life that is continuously unfolding from moment-to-moment. There are no implications in this context that refer to creation, morality, behavior, or the principle of good and evil. The main interest we have here is how life, nature and the cosmos arise in this instant, and how this natural process continuously changes so that the universe is completely different each and every moment.
In this framework, the creative force that brings about the urge for life is the same force that sustains the motion of every atomic particle and every wave in the universe. This is not a question of belief: it is a simple fact of physics that every bit of matter in this universe has motion in order to exist. I choose to call the essential organizing principle behind the motion of the universe as God-ing. This is not a thing, not a noun, not a being, but a verb, a process, an unending Now-ness. The reader who is interested in exploring this in greater depth can find an expanded explanation in my work: God is a Verb.
This idea of God as a process opens a new understanding of the point made earlier of the role of humans in arguing with God. We might have thought about this in dualistic terms that we humans would complain and argue with a separate God who was in ultimate control of things. However, with God as process, we as humans are an integral part of that process; we are not separate. In this instance, our complaints or disagreements are actually an expression of the Divine; they are part of the shaping of creation from moment to moment. Indeed, our free will and the way it is expressed is a vital element that makes us co-creators of the universe along with the God-ing process.
So the answer to the question of whether the stone thrower or God broke the window is that one cannot be separated from the other. The stone thrower is an expression of the Divine, it does not act as a separate entity. The window is broken, and it also is not separate. Windows break when hit by stones—this is the nature of glass. We must change our linear thinking to the understanding of Oneness; that each unfolding moment is the expression of the Divine.
Everything that “is” and everything that happens is an expression of God-ing. We do not need to await the touch of the Divine in order to know it; we simply need to open our eyes and our ears to experience what is happening right here and right now. We cannot separate ourselves from the God-ing expression; it is constantly happening, it is as close to us as our own breath and our own heartbeat; indeed it is us, our actions and even our thoughts.
The God-ing process is vast and all-encompassing; we cannot grasp its magnitude. Indeed, it is bigger than infinity. It is infinity to the power of infinity, beyond imagination, beyond the mind. It includes, but is not limited by, all universes, all realities, and all possibilities, from the smallest to the largest. Yet, amazingly, we can settle into it and “know” it on a level beyond the mind. In essence, we can learn to recognize Presence, as it is, and we can learn to immerse in it. Doing so, we become mystics.